A recommendation by federal health officials to loosen restrictions on marijuana would help alleviate concerns for many cannabis users and businesses, marijuana advocates in Arkansas said.

Bloomberg News reported earlier this week that a top official with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has recommended in a letter to the Drug Enforcement Agency reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule III drug.

Currently, marijuana is designated as a Schedule I drug under federal law, which is the same designation as heroin, LSD and ecstasy. According to the DEA, Schedule I drugs “have no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.”

Reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule III drug would put it under the same federal designation as Tylenol with codeine, ketamine, anabolic steroids and testosterone.

Even if marijuana is reclassified, it would not necessarily mean the drug would become legal.

The Drug Enforcement Agency has five different designations for drugs, with Schedule I being drugs that are most prone to abuse and Schedule V drugs the least open to abuse. However, a drug does not have to be federally listed as a scheduled drug for someone to be criminally prosecuted.

President Joe Biden requested the review of marijuana classifications in October 2022 after pardoning thousands who had been convicted of “simple possession” of marijuana under federal law.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday the Department of Health and Human Services and the DEA will work through an “independent process,” according to Bloomberg News.

“We’re going to let that process move forward,” she said.

With states legalizing recreational and medical marijuana, the drug’s current federal designation has become a tricky matter. Twenty-three states and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana and 38 states have legalized medicinal use, according to The Washington Post.

Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2016 to legalize medical marijuana. Since then 38 medical dispensaries have opened within the state and 94,059 Arkansans have obtained patient ID cards to purchase the drug. Voters rejected a constitutional amendment last year to legalize the drug for anyone 21 and older.

Arkansas is one of 38 states with medical marijuana, which is jointly regulated by the state Department of Finance and Administration and Department of Health, but its federal status has been a burden for businesses and patients, advocates have said.

Melissa Fults helped lead the 2016 campaign to legalize medical cannabis in Arkansas. She said the proposed federal change could mean marijuana would soon be treated similarly to over-the-counter products found in pharmacies around the state.

“Will that be a game changer? Absolutely,” Fults said. “Will it take Arkansas a while to catch up? This is Arkansas. We’re last in all the good things and first in all the bad.”

The reclassification could be even more dramatic for medical marijuana businesses in Arkansas, as marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I drug prevents publicly traded companies and Wall Street banks from investing in marijuana businesses out of a fear of running afoul of federal laws.

“I think a lot of these traditional financial groups are hesitant to really even look at cannabis until some of these federal rules [are changed],” said Robert McLarty, co-owner of The Source, a medical marijuana dispensary in Rogers.

Because of the drug’s federal designation, cannabis businesses are prevented from deducting operating expenses from federal taxes, McLarty said. If marijuana is designated as a Schedule III drug, he said, those businesses would be able to save a significant amount of money on their federal taxes.

Fults said a Schedule III designation could eventually mean lower prices because cannabis businesses could face more competition in a market with fewer regulations.

“It would be huge for the industry,” Fults said. “Which, you know, if they do the right thing, you know that will drop the prices down even lower.”

McLarty also described the recommendation to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule III drug as “a big step in the right direction.”

“The federal government is finally recognizing the medicinal benefit of marijuana,” McLarty said.

Information for this article was contributed by The Associated Press, and David Ovalle and Laurie McGinley of The Washington Post.

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